Transcript: Testimony of Author Piper Kerman on solitary confinement – Feb. 25, 2014

Partial transcript of the testimony of Piper Kerman, Author of Orange is the New Black, on solitary confinement. The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights hearing on “Reassessing Solitary Confinement II: The Human Rights, Fiscal, and Public Safety Consequences” was held on Feb. 25, 2014:

Chairman Durbin, Ranking Member Cruz, and distinguished members of this committee, thank you for having me here to address this important issue.

I spent 13 months as a prisoner in the federal system. If you’re familiar with my book, “Orange is the New Black”, you know that I was never held in isolation. The longest amount of time I was placed alone in a holding cell was four hours, and I was ready to climb the walls of that small room at the end of that.

I am here today to talk specifically about the impacts of solitary confinement on women in American prisons, jails, and detention centers.

Women are the fastest growing segment of the criminal justice system, and their families and communities are increasingly affected by what happens behind bars.

At least 63% of women in prison are there for a non-violent offense. However, some of the factors that contribute to these women’s incarceration can also end up landing them in solitary confinement.

During my first hours of incarceration, warnings about the solitary or the SHU came from both prisoners and staff very quickly, and very minor infractions could send you to the SHU. They can then keep you there as long as they want under whatever conditions they choose.

Unlike the normal hive-like communities of prison, 24-hour lockdown leaves you in a six by eight cell for weeks or months or even years. And this is unproductive for individuals, for prison institutions, and the outside communities to which 97% of all prisoners return.

Several factors make women’s experience in incarceration and solitary different from men’s.

Women in prison are much more likely than men to suffer from mental illness, which makes being put into solitary confinement much more likely and much more damaging.

Jeanne DiMola, who like the majority of women prisoners, had a history of mental illness, and 75% of women in prison do. She spent the first year of her six-year sentence in solitary confinement.

You have her full written statement. I will share some of her words with you: “I spent three-quarters of my time on a bunk with a blanket over my head in a fetal position rocking back and forth for comfort. I tried meditating to no avail. I can separate body from mind with my dissociative disorder. I cried a lot, not for me but for my kids. I laughed inappropriately. I got angry at myself, angry at those who abused me and led me to this life of addiction. I felt ashamed because I let others abuse my body because I felt I deserved it. I felt sorry I was born. I felt sorry for all the hurt that I caused. But most of all, I felt sorry that there wasn’t a rope to kill myself because everyday was worse than the last.”

Solitary is also misused as a threat to intimidate and silence women who are being sexually abused by staff, which is a widespread problem in prisons, jails, and detention centers that house women.

Early in my own sentence, a woman who had done a lot of time told me about a friend of hers who had been sexually abused by a guard at Danbury. She told me, “They have her in the SHU for months during the SIS investigation. They shot her full of psych drugs. She blew up like a balloon. When they finally let her out, she was a zombie. They do not play here.”

There are egregious examples of solitary confinement being used by prison officials to hide horrific systemic sexual abuse under their watch. The terrible threat of isolation makes women afraid to report abuse and serves as a powerful disincentive to ask for help or justice.

And finally, solitary has a devastating effect on families and children of women prisoners. Their health and safety – pregnant women should never be placed in solitary, and yet this is allowed in prisons throughout the U.S.

Most women in prison are mothers. A child’s need to see and hold his or her mother is one of the most basic human needs. Yet, visitation for prisoners in solitary is extremely limited and often all visitation privileges are revoked.

Isolation should only be used when a prisoner is a threat to her own safety or that of others, not when pregnant or suffering mental illness or for reporting abuse.

I urge that the Federal Bureau of Prisons in its assessment of solitary confinement practices take action to limit the use of solitary on women. They should visit as many women’s institutions as possible. FCIs like Tallahassee and Dublin. And they should include confidential discussions with the women who are incarcerated in those facilities.

Last week, my home state of New York announced significant solitary reforms, including prohibitions of placing pregnant women in solitary, and the Bureau of Prisons and other states should also embrace those kinds of comprehensive reforms.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify and to help this subcommittee address this very significant issue. I’m hopeful it will mark the next step in urgently-needed long-term oversight and reform.

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